Across and Down

Crossword constructors fight for representation in the world’s most beloved puzzle.

Available on CBC Gem

Across and Down

The Passionate Eye

What’s a 10-letter word for activism? CROSSWORDS.

The clues and words in crossword puzzles – and the ones that are left out – are a reflection of our society’s biases.

Across and Down follows a group of passionate crossword connoisseurs (aka “cruciverbalists”) as they fight to improve representation in their cherished puzzle.

Crossword puzzles have been ubiquitous for over 100 years. You can find them in magazines and newspapers; they’re online and available through their own apps. In fact, millions of people start their day by solving. But despite the widespread appeal of the crossword, women, people of colour and LGBTQ2SIA+ individuals have been almost invisible when it comes to puzzle bylines, clues and solutions. Not only that, clues can often be stuck in the past or worse, offensive. But why is this happening?

Ask today’s up-and-coming cruciverbalists and they’ll tell you it has to do with who’s at the helm of the major publications that publish crossword puzzles, like The New York Times. For too long, most of the power has been predominantly in the hands of white men – so it’s no surprise that what’s reflected in the grid comes from their own lives and experiences.

That must change.

Nova Scotia Sisters Tass and Lita Williams are among many passionate puzzlers who noticed the lack of women in crosswords. Armed with HB pencils, quick wit and a knack for turns-of-phrase, they’re determined to get women-centric puzzles into the big publications.

Nancy Serrano-Wu is new to crossword constructing, but her goal is to be published in the pinnacle of all puzzle publications, The New York Times. Her puzzles have been rejected 11 times and she can’t help but wonder if the words she’s including, that mirror her family’s multicultural heritage, are a part of the problem.

Nate Cardin remembers feeling a gut punch when he saw four empty squares waiting to be filled for the clue, “Husband’s spouse.” Looking at his husband Ben, he thought, “no, wife is not the only answer here.” Clues like this erase the experiences of queer people and he’d had enough of it, so he created Queer Qrosswords, an online puzzle pack to give LGBTQ2SIA+ constructors a voice and an outlet.

At 17, Soleil Saint-Cyr will never forget the day that Times puzzle editor Will Shortz (a veritable rock star in the crossword world) called to let her know she had became the youngest woman ever to publish a New York Times puzzle. But even during The Times’ Black constructors week (during Black History Month) only published six black constructors — not even a full week! Something is not right.

The last straw for constructors Anna Shechtman and Natan Last was when The New York Times inadvertently published a racial slur in a puzzle. They penned an open letter to The Times demanding that the crossword become more equitable, diverse and inclusive. More than 600 constructors and solvers signed that letter and because of it the whole crossworld took notice. Now, more women, people of colour, and LGBTQ2SIA+ people are gracing the editorial desks and test solver positions across publications.

Across and Down reminds us that words matter. You’ll never look at a crossword puzzle the same way again!